Sights and sounds of Santa Cruz Island — a weekend trip from SLO County
The trip: Backpacking to the primitive Del Norte Campground on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands.
What to do: Hiking, swimming, wildlife-viewing, stargazing, defending camp from wild foxes.
How to do it: Reserve a campsite from the U.S. National Parks Service on Recreation.gov and buy ferry tickets from Island Packers to travel from Ventura Harbor to Prisoners Harbor. Reservations for weekends may need to be made months in advance. Plan to carry all the water you’ll need in addition to food and gear.
The hike: A 3.5-mile strenuous hike up and down canyons from Prisoners Harbor. Return on an alternative 5-mile hike on an old navy road that begins with a steep climb and smooths out in the last few miles. (Bonus hike: From the campground, take an 8-mile round trip hike to Chinese Harbor, a crescent-shaped beach reminiscent of the Caribbean.)
Alternative: Scorpion Canyon Campground is a half-mile from Scorpion Anchorage ferry stop on the east side of Santa Cruz Island. Day trips are also available to five of the Channel Islands.
What it’s like: By the time our group reached the bare-bones campsite perched in the mountainous terrain of Santa Cruz Island, we had just enough daylight to put up our tents, cook the dinner we’d carried on our backs and spot an island fox.
We had headed to the largest of the Channel Islands, about 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, for a memorable two-night backpacking adventure.
Once we reached our destination, it was clear it offered the seclusion I’d sought in my quest to reconnect with old friends and family.
There was no vehicle noise. Instead, we heard crickets, birdsong and the sound of the wind in the grass.
Light pollution was so minimal that the Milky Way was more than a strip across the sky. We saw swirls of light.
“This is so California,” said Lynne, a friend who’d caught a flight down from Seattle for the trip.
She was right.
We hiked up and down canyons covered in coastal sage scrub and island oaks under the blazing sun, surrounded by a deep blue ocean littered with oil platforms. We saw baby quail and poppies.
On the hour-and-a-half long ferry ride to Santa Cruz Island, our vessel’s captain pointed out dolphins, a blue whale and a the trash of a mylar balloon. We docked in the teal waters of a cove surrounded by rocky cliffs.
Five of the eight islands in the Channel Islands archipelago fall within the boundaries of Channel Islands National Park, which is surrounded by a national marine sanctuary.
Part of the 96-square-mile Santa Cruz Island is managed by the Nature Conservancy, which has invested years into restoration. The other quarter is managed by the U.S. National Park Service.
That section is where the public can take day hikes, kayak, picnic or camp — either on the east side of the island at Scorpion Canyon Campground, just a half-mile from the ferry’s first stop, or at the back-country sites located 3.5 miles from Prisoners Harbor and 13.5 from Scorpion Anchorage.
We’d opted to take the shorter route, knowing we’d have to carry our own water. Also, I was bringing along my 71-year-old father, who was convinced he needed everything in his 60-pound backpack.
Upon landing at Prisoners Harbor, we studied animal bones and rainbow-colored seashells scattered on a picnic table, left by visitors who’d found the treasures and respected the park rules to take nothing from the land.
Then we headed up the hill.
We were struck by two things: the sun exposure and the sweeping views. The latter inspired awe each time we caught a new perspective of the rugged coastline from one of the many trails.
A group of us walked a hard day hike to a long, curved beach, where we sat in the pebbles and let the waves crash into us. A seal periodically popped its head up and watched us.
Earlier in the day, we’d discussed possible calamities that could happen during our visit. A tsunami could swamp the island. Or an earthquake, centered on the fault that crosses the island, could shake things up.
That didn’t happen, but just as we were talking about geology and how sand is formed, we watched rocks break from a cliff nearby — right where my friends had sat moments earlier — sending clouds of dust in the air.
When the chores were done back at camp, there wasn’t much to do but talk, play cards, drink whiskey and watch the movement of the marine layer over the mainland. Across the Santa Barbara Channel, the mainland California looked completely desolate and undeveloped.
The quick movements of an Island fox in the brush also caught our eyes.
Island foxes were almost extinct two decades ago, when only 15 cinnamon-colored cuties wandered the island.
But the big-eared, bushy-tailed predators have since made a remarkable recovery — faster than any other animal in the history of the Endangered Species Act. Their rebound was accomplished by managing the non-native creatures on the island, golden eagles and feral pigs.
Now, more than 2,000 island foxes wander Santa Cruz.
We saw the 4-pound critters hunting in a field of a nearby old ranch house, and at our campsite in the morning and evening hours.
They’re clever and not that shy, prompting park rangers to tell visitors to always use the boxes near camp to store food and zip your tent at the top because island foxes can open zippers from the bottom.
The grueling first mile of our alternative route back to the harbor was rewarded by surprise views of the coastline on the other side of the island, which varies in width from two to six miles.
Once at the harbor, we dropped our bags and jumped from the pier into the clear blue kelp-forested ocean — washing away the accumulated dirt and soothing our mosquito-bitten and sunburned skin.
Days after the trip, I’m still sore and a little dirty. But hiking in and out with all the gear led to a feeling of accomplishment for conquering the tough physical challenge.
My dad, Pete, had a similar take. “I was probably the most exhausted I’ve ever been and at times it took all I had to put one foot in front of the other,” he said. “But other than that, I was fine.”
That was a glowing review.